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What we want: Ramps

An early spring wild edible

Illustration by JP Thimot

Several years ago, before I became intricately involved in WNY’s local food movement, I gathered up all my courage and asked a local farmer, whom I did not know, about the idea of growing food specifically for chefs. I knew my chef friends wanted good quantities of specialty produce that they could not get here due to a lack of supply, or, if they were able to source these splendid items, the supply arrived wilted and battered from extended transportation.

“Well, what types of vegetables are you talking about?” the gentlemanly farmer responded, doing his best to cover up how silly and naive he found my inquiry.

“Ramps,” I answered excitedly and then continued to hurriedly rattle off other items, “and maybe fiddleheads? Cippolini onions? Sunchokes? How about Chioggia beets?”

“Ramps?” he responded, a suspicious eyebrow cocked.

“You know, wild leeks?” I said, with the near breathless anticipation usually reserved for schoolgirl crushes.

“You mean those little scrawny weeds? Heck,” he chuckled, “my yard is full of ‘em, I just mow those over. What would anybody want with those?”

You could have tipped me over with a feather.

The much sought after allium tricoccum (also known as wild leeks, ransom, and spring onions), sell for around $25 a pound in New York City. But even if you’re willing to pay the price, ramps are hard to come by. They cannot be cultivated, so foragers must search for them and pick them by hand; they aren’t commercially grown or harvested. These bright green shoots grow only along the shadow of the Appalachian and Allegany mountain path that runs from South Carolina toward Canada. Given their short season and finicky nature, it’s easy to see why few farmers would come to depend on ramps for regular income.

But along with fiddleheads and asparagus, ramps are also one of the first edibles to emerge from the ground, harbingers of spring that lend a fresh, green, grassy flavor to our dinner tables.

With a profile redolent of both garlic and leeks, the ramp varies in intensity from plant to plant. It is also almost entirely consumable. When chopped, the leaves partner well with eggs or any stir-fry. A quick chiffonade and they are also a good finish to a simple starch such as rice or potatoes. The bulbs and purple stems are wonderful when sautéed with a little olive oil; in this form they make a flavorful addition to any light pasta dish or white pizza. And, if you are a little adventurous in the kitchen, you can quick-pickle them for use in a vodka martini (adding a splash of the pickling juice for flavor), or sprinkle the soft and bright bulbs amongst the greens of a sandwich or salad.

I am pleased to say that in recent WNY springs, ramps have been plentiful for those who are willing to make the effort. Local chefs have taken to foraging for their own in the shady and moist foothills of Cattaraugus and Wyoming Counties, or purchasing them through their relatively new connections to local farmers who have access to the delicious weed. Last year you could find bundles of them for sale at the Elmwood-Bidwell Market, and they have even made an appearance in the produce section at Wegmans, if only for a week or two.

If you are fortunate enough to come upon bunches of these lithe green beauties for sale, make sure to look for fresh green leaves and moist bulbs. Clean ramps as you would scallions, storing them in the refrigerator in a plastic bag.

Pickled Ramps*

1/2 cup white wine vinegar
(the better the vinegar, the
better the pickle)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/2 tbsp salt
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp fennel seed
1/2 tsp white peppercorns
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 small, dried red chile
1 pound ramps, cleaned and trimmed
Kosher salt for blanching

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Prepare an ice water bath of equal size.
Clean the ramps thoroughly, removing the papery skin from the bulb. Trim the bulbs about ¼” from the green leaves, reserving the leaves for another use. Rinse the bulbs under cool water.
Quickly blanch the ramps in the boiling water, and then shock them in ice water. Drain the ramps well and place them in a clean, dry jar.
Begin the brine by combining the vinegar, sugar, honey, salt and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add the mustard, coriander, fennel, peppercorns, and chile.
Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the ramps in the jar and allow to cool. Seal jar tightly and store in the refrigerator, where the ramps will remain fresh for several weeks.

*This is my adaptation of a recipe originally credited to chef Tom Colicchio.

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